Security Brief

Security Brief: Russia Wraps Vostok Exercise; Taliban Experiments With Governance

Catch up on everything you need to know about Russian military exercises, a Taliban experiment in governance, and a South Korean diplomatic offensive.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov watch the Vostok-2018 military drills at Tsugol training ground not far from the Chinese and Mongolian border in Siberia, on September 13, 2018. ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov watch the Vostok-2018 military drills at Tsugol training ground not far from the Chinese and Mongolian border in Siberia, on September 13, 2018. ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Russian forces carry out a major military exercise in the country’s east. The Taliban isn’t just an insurgency anymore — it’s a governing party. New details on Google’s plans to re-enter the Chinese market. South Korean officials gear up to salvage the diplomatic opening with the North. And yet another Russian spy scandal erupts in Europe.

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Vostok. Russian armed forces wrapped up a huge (supposedly, anyway) military exercise dubbed Vostok. The figures for the exercise were eye-catching: 300,000 troops, 30,000 ground vehicles, 1,000 aircraft, dozens of ships, and a contingent of Chinese troops thrown in for added measure.

Close observers of the Russian military argue that the troop figure is likely overstated. Russian forces directly participating in the exercise probably number closer to 100,000, but that still amounts to a major exercise that offered Russian President Vladimir Putin the opportunity to review his troops and peer through binoculars at the massive military modernization effort he has overseen.

And with Russian forces practicing modern warfare in Syria, an exercise like Vostok provides a chance for the Russian military to spread the lessons it has learned from its expeditionary troops there to the broader force

The exercise saw Russian and Chinese troops rehearse a major conflict that spanned much of Russia’s east, probably with the United States as its unstated, imagined adversary. That’s the kind of war Russia has little appetite to fight—let alone the funds to support.

But the participation of Chinese troops in the exercise offers a novel aspect to these exercises. Russia watchers argue that the exercise represents a signal from Russia that the diplomatic isolation campaign waged by the West has not left the country quite as lonely as many in Washington would have hoped. And while the exercise likely does not signal the coming of a meaningful alliance between Russia and China, it points toward warming relations.  

Indeed, officials in Washington don’t appear particularly worried. “I see little in the long term that aligns Russia and China,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters last week.  

Taliban governance. With the Taliban controlling ever greater territory in Afghanistan, the insurgent group is getting its latest test in governance—with surprising results. “The Taliban are seeking to present themselves as a legitimate political movement able to administer services and govern the country,” Ashley Jackson reports for Foreign Policy. “As U.S. and Afghan forces pull back to protect major cities—as part of Washington’s new strategy—the Taliban are filling the vacuum. They are no longer just a shadowy insurgency; they are a government in waiting.”

Mattis-watch. It’s not a great time to be Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. A new New York Times story on the relationship between Mattis and his boss paints “a portrait of a president who has soured on his defense secretary, weary of unfavorable comparisons to Mr. Mattis as the adult in the room, and increasingly concerned that he is a Democrat at heart.”

The dispute between Mattis and Trump goes beyond personality. As my colleague Lara Seligman wrote last month, lately Mattis has been losing far more arguments than he’s been winning.

Don’t be evil. Google’s prototype for a search engine complying with Chinese internet controls appears to lay the groundwork for government surveillance, the Intercept reports. That prototype “links users’ searches to their personal phone numbers, thus making it easier for the Chinese government to monitor people’s queries,” according to the outlet.  

Moon to Pyongyang. It’s a big week for South Korean President Moon Jae-in: On Tuesday he heads to Pyongyang for a three-day summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. With talks between Washington and Pyongyang stalled, Moon faces the unenviable task of attempting to resuscitate a diplomatic process aimed at convincing North Korea to give up its weapons. The Wall Street Journal reports that Moon will dangle a formal end to the Korean War in exchange for a declaration of North Korean nuclear weapons.  

The entourage. Moon travels to Seoul at the head of a sizable entourage that includes some 64 government, social, and business figures, the Korea Herald reports. With Seoul looking to entice Pyongyang to the table with promises of economic development, the entourage includes representatives from some of South Korea’s most powerful businesses, including Samsung, LG, and Hyundai.

Sanctions busting. North Korean operatives are using American technology platforms to evade sanctions on the country, the Wall Street Journal reports. Using tools such as and Upwork, North Koreans have found work and clients online, generating at least tens of thousands of dollars in revenue for Pyongyang.   

Meanwhile in Turtle Bay. American U.N. diplomats called for an urgent meeting of the Security Council Monday to discuss what they describe as efforts to undermine sanctions on North Korea. The meeting comes on the heels of complaints from American officials that Russian diplomats are attempting to water down a report on North Korean sanctions evasion.  

Latest designations. The U.S. Treasury Department announced a fresh slate of sanctions targeting Russian and Chinese tech firms accused of violating sanctions on North Korea.  

Not a fan, huh? In the latest dust-up over President Donald Trump’s moves to strip former government officials of their security clearances, retired Adm. Bill McRaven, the former SOCOM head, has stepped down from the Defense Innovation Board, a Pentagon advisory body.  

Expulsions. Authorities in the Netherlands expelled two men accused of plotting a cyber attack on a Swiss research facility analyzing nerve agent samples linked to the recent assassination of a former Russian spy in Britain. The two alleged Russian spies appear to be linked to an attack on the lab in July.  

The response in Bern. Authorities in Switzerland demanded that Russia halt its espionage activities in the country following the expulsion of the two Russian agents from the Netherlands. Breaking with its typical neutrality in such matters, Swiss authorities said Russian operatives had also struck other institutions in Switzerland, including the World Anti-Doping Agency.

The GRU link. Russian authorities continue to deny that two men accused of carrying out the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal are linked to Russian intelligence, but evidence to the contrary keeps piling up. Russian journalists discovered that a phone number on one of the suspect’s passport is linked to the Russian Defense Ministry.

Another one. The Pussy Riot activist Pyotr Verzilov was flown to Germany for medical treatment after falling ill in what some suspect is another poisoning of a Kremlin critic.

WikiLeaked. A new trove of internal WikiLeaks documents obtained by the Associated Press indicate Julian Assange may have sought to obtain a Russian visa in 2010 as he was trying to avoid extradition to Sweden.

Intercept. A pair of American F-22 jets intercepted a flight of Russian TU-95 bombers and Su-35 fighter jets last week. The intercept would have been fairly routine had it not been for the presence of the Su-35 escort, the Aviationist notes.  

P-8s and Patriots to Seoul. The State Department approved the possible sale to South Korea of P-8 surveillance aircraft and Patriot missiles. The aircraft sale would provide intelligence capabilities toward China’s submarine and naval fleet, in addition to monitoring North Korean military activity, the Defense News writes.  

Buzzing the tower. The Aviationist has photos of the F-18—complete with a custom paint job—that Tom Cruise will likely be flying in the upcoming Top Gun sequel.  

The Trump effect. European defense officials are warily watching developments in Washington, and French Defence Minister Florence Parly is the latest to sound the alarm on President Donald Trump’s commitments to the continent. “Can we always count, in every place and in every circumstance, on American support?” she asked in a speech last week.

Smooth it over. Pakistan’s top army official is on a three-day visit to China that comes on the heels of controversial comments by the Pakistani commerce minister questioning Beijing’s infrastructure ambitions for its ally.  

Peace overture. President Vladimir Putin offered Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe an unexpected proposal: an immediate peace treaty to formally end World War II hostilities between the two countries. But that offer would almost certainly require Japan to accept Russian control of a disputed island chain, and Tokyo immediately rejected the offer, the Diplomat reports.

Reprimand. China demanded that Taiwan halt espionage activities on the mainland and claimed that the island nation recently stepped up “sabotage” and “infiltration” operations.  

Another delay. The F-35 suffered another delay in its slow path toward operational testing. The Pentagon’s chief weapons tester has pushed back his examination of the fighter jet until his office gets a copy of the F-35’s latest software release.  

Japan’s Aegis. Japan and the United States successfully shot down a dummy missile using Japan’s new Aegis missile system. Tokyo has acquired the weapon in a bid to improve missile defenses primarily against North Korea.

Admire the spirit. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif criticized Twitter for banning what he claimed where the accounts of “real” Iranians after the company took down a slew of accounts linked to what was described as an Iranian influence operation. Twitter remains banned in Iran.  

Gaza tensions. Israeli security forces and protesters in Gaza continue to face off along the border fence separating Israel from the enclave. Some 12,000 Palestinians participated in Friday’s protests, which continued into the weekend on Saturday and Sunday. Israeli forces opened fire on protesters and said rioters had thrown grenades and pipe bombs across the border. Separately, a Palestinian man stabbed to death a U.S.-born Israeli settler.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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